Guatemala has become one of the places to be seen in Central America. More and more tourists are traveling here to experience the incredible sights and vibrant culture that this small country offers.
But while this may be a tiny nation, the tourist attractions are many, and if you are only visiting for a short time, it can be worth visiting the top-rated tourist attractions in Guatemala to get the most diverse and exciting experience.
The country is known for its incredible Mayan ruins, and Tikal remains one of Guatemala’s most visited places. Yet the country is also home to many fascinating museums, natural beauty spots, and cultural experiences that are unrivaled the world over. This can become quickly confusing for tourists, primarily since many tourist attractions are spread across the entire country rather than being centralized in its capital, Guatemala City.
In this guide to Guatemala’s best tourist attractions, I will share the top 10 that will give you a chance to explore the most fantastic attractions in the country.
A Quick Introduction To Guatemala
Guatemala is located to the south of Mexico and is also bordered by Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize, with the north Pacific ocean bordering its western side. It is a relatively small country that can be easily crossed in a matter of hours – this makes it ideal for a short exploration and perfect for backpacking.
The country’s history dates back many thousands of years, with some ruins dating back more than 1500 years. The Mayan heritage of the country is still very prevalent today, and the tourist industry here relies heavily on visitors to these sites.
But things have not always been so rosy for Guatemala. It has had several upheavals over the years, starting with the Spanish invasion in the 18th century, which saw the traditional Mayan culture crumble. However, after just over a century of being ruled, Guatemala claimed its independence, but this didn’t prevent a devastating civil war that took place between the 1960s and 1990s.
After many years of trouble and challenges, Guatemala has begun to develop and grow, and the capital city is now thriving and the most largely populated in Central America.
Guatemala also attracts a lot of visitors, thanks to its incredible natural scenery. While many people may not immediately think of this country when thinking about panoramic views, many can be seen. The most remarkable natural wonders here are the many volcanoes and the beautiful mountain ranges. Guatemala is one of the world’s highest altitude nations, and as a result, has a beautiful spring-like climate, despite being a tropical country.
10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions In Guatemala 2021
One of the most exciting things about the tourist attractions in Guatemala is that they are so versatile. From volcanoes and rainforests to ancient ruins and museums, there is something to sate every visitor’s desires.
It is worth noting that Guatemala city, in the south of the country, is a great place to start your exploration and provides an excellent base for exploring the far reaches of the rest of the country. That being said, areas such as Lake Atitlan require a more lengthy stay, so basing yourself here for a week is highly recommended.
01. Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is perhaps one of the most popular destinations for tourists coming to Guatemala. This is not surprising when you look at the stunning natural beauty that can be found here.
As I detailed earlier, visiting this area requires at least a week, this is owing to the fact that there are many small villages and towns that surround the lake, and each of them has something new to offer. Some of these villages have adapted to tourists’ needs, whereas others remain much more traditional, and it’s nice to see the eclectic mix.
You’ll get to the lake via a city called Panajachel, but after this, you will experience a more primitive way of life since many of the villages can only be accessed via a water taxi, which is a wonderful experience in itself.
There are several ways that you can get involved in the culture here, such as attending one of the many Spanish classes or making the most of a spiritual retreat.
Many Mayan ruins are scattered all over Guatemala, but none are quite as spectacular and well-loved as those at Tikal, in the north of the country.
While the area goes by the name of Tikal in modern-day Guatemala, it is believed that back in its heyday, it would have been called Yax Mutal. The ruined city lies in the heart of the lush green rainforest, so not only will you be able to appreciate the rich history of the country but also its natural splendor.
This is a UNESCO world heritage site and sits within the greater Tikal National Park, another area of notability in the country. The site can also lay claim to being the most extensive Mayan ruins found in pre-Columbian culture, so there is a lot to explore here.
You will find magnificent pyramids and temples, all with the traditional Mayan architecture. There are many guided tours happening each day, allowing you to learn more about the history of these fascinating people. It may come as a surprise that the Tikal ruins are now very easily accessible to tourists, unlike some of the other notable ruins like Peru’s Machu Picchu, which is notoriously difficult to get to. However, if you also plan to explore the national park, it pays to remember that this is a very expansive area.
One of the largest draws to Guatemala is its hugely volcanic landscape – although today, only three of the many volcanoes are active. That being said, that isn’t to say that there aren’t some incredible sights to be seen.
Pacaya is perhaps the most visited volcano in the country, and it’s little wonder when you see the immense views from the top and the beautiful surroundings. What’s more, this is one of the few active volcanoes in the country, its first eruption more than 20,000 years ago. The black, rocky terrain reflects the long history of this natural wonder. More than 2550 feet above sea-level, you can appreciate that this is something of a serious hike if you are looking to go to the top. Still, once there, you will find stunning views out across the Pacific ocean and back across the country in the opposite direction.
04. Chichicastenango Market
There are fewer ways to get involved with the local way of life than by visiting one of Guatemala’s many markets. There are many to choose from, but Chichicastenango is perhaps one of the most exciting.
The locals refer to the town as Chichi, and if you visit on any other day apart from Sunday or Thursday, you will be met with quiet cobblestone streets and sleepy locals. However, come market day, the town takes on a whole new persona and is home to arguably the country’s busiest market.
Interacting with the locals and getting a flavor for their way of life could not be easier than at the Chichi market since all the stalls here are run by local people. You will find people selling hand-crafted goods such as blankets and textiles and various types of food.
The sights, sounds, smells, and colors of a local Guatemalan market are things that absolutely must be experienced on a trip to this amazing country.
05. Rio Dulce
If you have a taste for all things aquatic, then visiting the most famous river in Guatemala is a must for your vacation. The Dulce river, known locally as the Rio Dulce, is incredibly scenic and has plenty of things to keep even the most visitor entertained.
Historically, the river was known for its pirate activity, but thankfully, the modern-day experience is a lot less frightening. You will find plenty of opportunities to get out onto the water either in a private sailboat or on a tour, and it is easy to spend an entire day here, relaxing in the beautiful surroundings.
The river stems off the Lake Izabal, and at this point, you will find the Spanish Colonial fort of Castillo de San Felipe De Lara, which is worth exploring. Thanks to the plentiful jungle in this area, this is also an excellent option for anyone looking to explore the country’s wildlife and nature
06. Semuc Champey
This is one of the lesser-known tourist attractions, but it still brings in quite a few visitors and is exceptionally well-loved by locals and visitors alike.
Semuc Champey is remotely located, so it takes a little effort to get here, but your efforts will be rewarded with the breathtaking sights that await you. Several pristine turquoise pools cascade down an incline and are met at the bottom by a stunning limestone bridge.
Many people flock here to take advantage of the clear waters, which are ideal for swimming, but the beautiful jungle is also a massive draw, with many people enjoying the 45-minute jungle hike required to access the site.
Once here, there are many waterfalls and points where diving into the water is a highly-favored activity.
If you want to continue your hike and view Semuc Champey from a higher vantage point, the El Mirador viewing point is an excellent way to do this.
07. Santa Catalina Arch
Located in Antigua, Guatemala, the Santa Catalina Arc is one of the most notable pieces of architecture in the country, and many people come to see its glory every year.
The iconic arch dates back to the 1600s and served a very different purpose to the one it does today. The arch was erected initially to allow cloistered nuns to move between the convent and the connecting school without having to go out onto the street. However, today, it boasts being one of the most recognizable sights in the city of Antigua Guatemala.
Its unique pastel colors and traditional architecture are reminiscent of the Guatemalan past, and the arch, despite its age, is exceptionally well preserved.
While passing through Antigua, you will also notice the wide variety of traditional and brightly colored buildings. This is something of an architectural lover’s paradise. These striking buildings are set off by the quaint, narrow streets of the area – a real hidden gem.
The arch makes for one of the best photo opportunities in Guatemala’s built-up areas, and the market opposite the monument is well worth a passing visit.
There is no denying that there are some incredible cities and towns to visit while staying in Guatemala, but if you want to kick back and relax, there are fewer places more apt than the beach. Monterrico and Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii is a breathtaking oceanside nature reserve that offers peace and tranquility to all those who veer off the beaten track.
Much of Guatemala benefits from the colder mountain climate, but as you come back down to sea-level, the weather changes to something much more tropical, so this is ideal if you’re something of a sun-seeker.
The nature reserve here is something unique and special and was designed as a way of conserving the sea turtles and the mature mangroves in the area. There are plenty of opportunities to take a guided tour by boat to discover more about what goes on here and to get up close and personal with some of the wildlife.
You’ll see a variety of turtle species as well as some beautiful birdlife, and afterward, you can retire to a beachside retreat for some relaxation.
It is worth noting that, while there is a beautiful ocean here, the high level of surf means that it isn’t the best place to swim. If you are looking for a swimming spot, you may be better heading to one of the less choppy beaches like Playa Blanca in Livingstone on the Caribbean coast.
09. Chicabel Lake
To fully appreciate the Mayna history of this country, exploring the things they left behind is essential. One of the most beautiful places to do this is at Chicabel Lake, which was of particular significance to the Mayan people and is considered sacred.
The lake lies in the department of Quetzaltenango – the main town here is, without a doubt, worth checking out as you pass through, and is surrounded by gorgeous tropical rainforest. You might say this is a hidden turquoise treasure in the heart of Guatemala – but it is so well-known that it often gets quite busy.
The lake was formed in a crater at an astonishing 2700 meters above sea level, and this means that the neighboring forest canopy is shrouded in cloud. If you’re looking for a heavenly location that is great for photos, you’ll find it here.
Around the edges of the lake, you will find several Mayan shrines which are still used by people today, making this one of the most significant areas for people who still abide by the traditional Mayan customs.
10. National Palace Of Culture
One of the most interesting aspects of this building is the museum, which lies within, and this attracts many visitors, both from Guatemala and beyond. However, you will also find many shows taking place here, including many musical events. It may come as a surprise that music plays a huge part in Guatemalan culture, and this can be seen throughout its capital city with various concerts and street music being played.
The building is considered to be a symbol of Guatemala city, and this is because of the incredible architecture and intricate design. It is home to the Guatemalan government and served as the home of the president for a period of time.
Guatemala is a Central American country that is flourishing more and more every year. It is now seeing millions of visitors who flock here for the varied and diverse array of tourist attractions every year.
One of the most exciting things about this country is the sheer range of things there are to do here. Nowhere else on earth will you find such a contrast of beaches, volcanoes, jungle, ancient ruins, and vibrant cities – Guatemala has it all.
However, with this comes the puzzling choice of what to see and do while staying here. You could easily spend a few weeks in this country and still now run out of things to do and places to go, but if you don’t have that kind of time to spare, my guide to the 10 top-rated tourist attractions in Guatemala 2021 will break it down for you.
Whatever you are looking to do, you can guarantee that Guatemala will cater to you.